A handball offense in soccer: The ultimate NP-complete problem (2)

In this second and final part of the series, we will discuss the solutions and problems arising from the new definition of the “handball offense”. Before we go any further, let us make sure that everybody understands that the hands/arms of a player – other than the goalkeeper in his/her own penalty area – are an integral of the body and it is inevitable that the during the game there will be contact between the ball and the hands/arms even though the players try to prevent it. That is why until about 10 years ago, the Law 12 regarding handling was interpreted in a more liberal way, penalizing only offenses in which the player deliberately used his/her hand/arm to play the ball. With football expects taking over, what the coaches and players wanted in a game superseded the writings of the guardians of the game to the point that the Law 12 regarding handling has to be redefined a year ago by IFAB. This is not a criticism but rather an objective observation. 

Now let us look at the new definition of the “handball offense” in detail:

The definition has three parts: 

  1. It is an offense
  2. It is usually an offense
  3. it is not usually an offense

By categorizing the offense in those three categories, the guardians of the game is creating gray areas by the use of the word “usually”. This vagueness created by the word “usually” is a very unorthodox approach to the LOTG.

Let us have a look at the first part:

It is an offense if a player:

  • deliberately touches the ball with their hand/arm, including moving the hand/arm towards the ball
  • gains possession/control of the ball after it has touched their hand/arm and then:
    • scores in the opponents’ goal
    • creates a goal-scoring opportunity
  • scores in the opponents’ goal directly from their hand/arm, even if accidental, including by the goalkeeper

The first one is very clear; it is what the Law defined for years. This is the action of a player who deliberately/intentionally plays the ball with her/his hand/arm. That is moving the hand/arm towards the ball or not removing it from the projectile of the ball even though the player has the time to do so. 

The second and third are a direct result of what football expects. Football does not want goals scored directly by hand whether it is accidental or deliberate. This is very objective and easily implementable if the referee or VAR sees it. The subjective part – which will require further defining – is creating a goal-scoring opportunity

This is rather easy with a VAR implementation. The VAR protocol says:  “Goal/no goal • attacking team offense in the build-up to or scoring of the goal (handball, foul, offside etc.) “ The build-up is defined in the detailed VAR protocol. So it is rather easy for a VAR to review the whole build-up prior to a goal to see whether there is any accidental handball.

But how about a referee without the use of the VAR: how will she/he handle this issue? (This actually is another proof that the recent changes are written for the top level of the game) As soon as a team gets possession of the ball that possession might lead to a goal and hence the referee has to penalize all accidental handballs: Is that the intent of the new definition of handball offense? Or what is meant by a goal-scoring opportunity in the case of game without any VAR?

Let us now look into the “usually an offense” part. 

It is usually an offense if a player:

  • touches the ball with their hand/arm when:
    • the hand/arm has made their body unnaturally bigger
    • the hand/arm is above/beyond their shoulder level (unless the player deliberately plays the ball which then touches their hand/arm)

The above offenses apply even if the ball touches a player’s hand/arm directly from the head or body (including the foot) of another player who is close.

The second point is very objective and hence will not require further interpretation or definition. As long as the referee or VAR can see that then the handball offense will be penalized. What is problematic is why this is “usually’ an offense. So it means there are cases when the hand/arm is above/beyond shoulder level and the player touches the ball with his/her hand/arm and this will not constitute an offense.  Even the part on “it is usually not offense” does not answer this question. Do you see what kind of can of worms the word “usually’ might open? 

The last sentence rules out the prior criterion for a handball offense, namely the proximity of the ball to the hand/arm.

The first point is very subjective: “When the hand/arm made their body unnaturally bigger” What is unnaturally bigger or what is naturally bigger? There is a hint down in the third part for the definition of unnaturally bigger where it says “if the hand/arm is close to the body and does not make the body unnaturally bigger.”  So the criterion for deciding whether a hand/arm is in unnatural position is its proximity to the body. Since players cannot play the 90 minutes standing in an at attention position, most of the contact between the ball and the hand/arm can be interpreted as making the body unnaturally bigger. This will make life very difficult for the referees, especially when the contact is by a defender in his/her penalty area. This wording will not create standard calls for handball offense across the globe, which is the goal of the guardians of our beautiful game.

For the “it is usually not offense” part the definition is quite objective. But it restricts non-penalizable contacts between the hand/arm and the ball to three cases with the exceptions that “if the hand/arm is close to the body and does not make the body unnaturally bigger” and “…but not extended laterally or vertically away from the body.”

Except for the above offenses, it is not usually an offense if the ball touches a player’s hand/arm:

  • directly from the player’s own head or body (including the foot)
  • directly from the head or body (including the foot) of another player who is close
  • if the hand/arm is close to the body and does not make the body unnaturally bigger
  • when a player falls and the hand/arm is between the body and the ground to support the body, but not extended laterally or vertically away from the body”

The new definition of the “handball offense” is trying to satisfy the needs of what football expects.  The new wording has a lot of subjectivity and tries to restrict the interpretation of the referee. If you read the letter of the current definition, nearly all contact between the ball and the hand/arm should be penalized or could be penalized. 

The guardians of soccer now have three options: To define some of the subjectivity further so the calls are more standard; to change the law so that every contact between the hand/arm and the ball is an offense or do nothing for a while to see where we are headed to.

None of the other 11 direct free kick offencss are defined in detail like the handball offense in the LOTG. All of us know that although a contact is required for the other 11 offenses, not all contacts are penalized unless you are “a referee by the book”. The referees look at the incidents and decide with their experience and the unwritten rules of what football expects whether the contact required a direct free kick/penalty kick to be called. We do not seem to have too much trouble with the interpretation of the other 11 direct free kick offenses. Why do we give a special status to the handball offense, when this offense is the least likely foul that can create game control problems?

There is a saying in Turkish: “A crazy person threw a rock into a well, a thousand smart women and men couldn’t get it out”.  I know who the smart women and men are, but I am not sure about the crazy person….

Ahmet Guvener ( is the former Secretary General and the Chief Soccer Officer of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Georgetown, TX.

4 comments about "A handball offense in soccer: The ultimate NP-complete problem (2)".
  1. R2 Dad, January 17, 2020 at 10:09 a.m.

    This is all IFAB's doing. And the PK in the Champoins League final last year contradicts this because the ball hit the players chest first, in what appeared to be a player kicking the ball at an arm:
    I know, the final conclusion was his arm was in an extended position, but this is all still clear as mud to the casual fan and an implementation nightmare for leagues without VAR. It still amounts to more complicated rules that can still be mis-interpreted. I think IFAB should walk this back like they did during the women's world cup keeper-with-both-feet-on-the-endline-during PKs cluster.

  2. Michael Saunders replied, January 17, 2020 at 11:08 a.m.

    The IFAB by their wording have created a "Catch 22" situation for referees.  Not including proximity completely from the guideline causes a problem for referees.  As Ahmet emphasizes,  players cannot run at attention to avoid making their bodies unaturally bigger.   

  3. John Polis, January 17, 2020 at 12:43 p.m.

    Very good analysis Ahmet on something that I have been harping on for the last few years. The latest LOTG "fix" of handball description have made it worse for the players, the referees and the fans. It was a farce in the women's World Cup last summer. It has pinned referees into a corner when the rules have always been designed to keep the game moving, enable the referees to ignore trifling offenses and (most important of all) avoid making calls that are doubtful. We need a whole new rewrite to broaden forgiveness of accidental handball violations and clarify it for players and fans.

  4. Dick Burns, February 7, 2020 at 7:59 p.m.

    I agree with Jphn Polis. Basically, the referee should have the capability to make a comman sense decision - intentional or deliberate. I guess I am school - started refereeing in the '70s when there was no VAR or even much TV coverage of any kind. What we have done with the hand of God. I remember contact witj the arm/hand thay were correctly not called when it was not intentional. Just as well I am retired

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications